Front Squat Positioning

So, in looking at the picture, everyone was able to cue in on the fact that the elbows are down instead of up. This leads to a host of problems throughout the movement.

If, be it for flexibility reasons or just bad form, the elbows are down the first thing that will happen is a forward placement of the bar in front of the midline of the base of support, in this case Maggie’s foot. This forward placement will cause the weight of the barbell to be out front of the body, thereby taxing the midline as it tries to stay upright and over the center of gravity. This stress on the midline, the inability to keep the chest up, elbows up and the back in an upright and extended position, deforms the squat and predisposes the athlete to improper ROM, faulty movement patterns and potential injury. The lower back is taken out of extension and begins to round as the shoulder girdle softens, thereby collapsing under load. In compensation, the neck extends forward at an odd angle to maintain neutrality and the weight is borne onto the toes. The wrists are supporting a large majority of the load, the front delts are working overtime and upon coming up out of the hole, the knees are experiencing shear forces acting upon them by the extra loading of the quads and forward placement of the weight.

Insofar as depth is concerned, the squat should be ass to ankles. Although, as Tom pointed out, the front squat is less reliant upon the hamstrings due to the change in torso/pelvic angle, the stress on the knees can be relieved to some degree by some involvement of the adductors and hammies with a full depth squat. The majority of the work is going to be from the quads and if the weight is placed nicely over center foot, the drive will come off the heel allowing the knees and surrounding musculature to work together in an efficient and safe manner. Stopping high not only reduces the reflexive properties of the muscles experienced at full ROM, but limits the amount of weight you can move. The Stretch Shortening Cycle of the muscles and the natural hamstring/calf contact bounce is safe and effective with squats.

The pic on the right has a nice set up in it, besides being a tad high in the squat. The bar is over midfoot, the elbows are up and that places the neck in a natural extension and the back in a proper extension. There is still a lot of midline work going on to keep that bar over the foot as she drives up, but not nearly as much as when the bar is out front. The coaching cue here being to “drive the elbows up toward the ceiling”. This keeps the torso upright and lumbar and thoracic spine in nice extension and strong as hell.

I can’t see precisely where the knees are, but from the angle in the pic it would seem they are in a bit too narrow. A little more outward flare of the toes and subsequently the knees, would allow more depth into the bottom of the squat by allowing the hips to open more at the bottom. This again helps recruit more muscle into moving the weight back up and would allow even a tad more of a vertical torso position and better weight displacement.

Warm up drills with PVC bar or thumbs in the collar bone “elbow up/chest up”  bottom of squat drills should induce a good stretch across the rear delts, triceps, and the mid back. It should almost feel as though the mid-back is about to cramp just below the shoulder blades. This is a good thing. Under load this tension will keep the spine happy and allow you to move heavy loads in the front squat.

In the case of poor flexibility, as in pic 1, all of the aforementioned problems are going to arise. So, if you have an athlete that is working on anterior chain development, you can have them work the front squat or transition them to a high bar “olympic style” back squat, keeping the torso as upright as possible. If front squats are your choice and the legs aren’t getting the work they should because the loading on the wrists and front delts prevent use of heavier weights then, and only then, can you do the stupid “cross your arms” front squat. Although I will ridicule you, you must still maintain the “elbows up/chest up” cues with this position to make the movement safe and effective.

So in order to get better at the front squat, you need to be flexible. Stretch not only the shoulders, but the lats and triceps, rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles in the back. Wrist felxibility helps to open the hand up and allow the elbows to come up since the hand is not “death gripping” the bar which puts tension in the forearm and reduces flexibility. Additionally, rolling out the back before and after workouts will help in developing the felxibility in the spine needed to maintain those upright and locked in positions.

There you have it, so go forth and conquer….or at least do some heavy front squats.

4 thoughts on “Front Squat Positioning

  1. Robert

    Great article, thought I don’t understand your “stupid” comment about a crossed arm front squat. If it helps get huger weight for those without ideal front rack geometry then why ridicule and call it stupid? That attitude is not helpful. Simple fact is that peoe with long firearms or other body geometry challenges will always have issue with that position. Work arounds are not stupid – they enable.

  2. Robert – You are reading into my article and not understanding my sarcastic sense of humor. While I don’t like the crossed arms position, for reasons I will detail momentarily, I wouldn’t deem the lifter “stupid”, nor would I stand across the room and ridicule them. It’s just semantics to add some of my infamous coaching sarcasm to my post. My clients are pretty used to it, are not offended by it, and still are given an understanding and explanation as to why I prefer to do things a certain way.

    Calling the position “stupid” was by no means a personal attack on you or anyone else who does it that way. It’s just the way I write and since it’s on MY blog, I tend to speak my mind. If I don’t like something, chances are good that I will call it “lame”, “stupid”, or “complete jackassery” – whatever I can think of. I hate spiders, therefor, I think they are stupid. I am sure some arachnid loving fan out there will send me hate email now, but it is what it is. In other words, don’t read into it.

    If you were to come into CFC and front squat in a crossover position, I would not be throwing tomatoes at you and laughing until you left. Instead, I would diagnose your inflexibility issues, anthropometry concerns, and skill in the movement and make suggestions to change the position over time.

    Although very rare in occurrence, we do use crossover positioning with some clients. The same rules apply as in a front rack position in regards to chest up, elbows up, etc., but there are some definite drawbacks. Over time we transition them to a front rack – each and every one of them.

    The first step is diagnosing the problem. Most of the time it is an inflexibility issue. Lats, rotators, triceps, rhomboids, traps, and the muscles of the upper and lower arm are super tight and cannot facilitate the position. So we work on specific rolling and stretching to fix those issues.

    If it’s an issue of anthropometry, in this case a longer ulna/radius than most folks, then we start to work on grip positioning. The hands move out to shorten the forearm lever. Yes, there will be increased tension created this way in the shoulder, but again, stretching by doing and by prehab/rehab will fix it. We can’t get stupid wide in the grip on the barbell, but we can open it up more than the average position.

    If skill or unfamiliarity with the position and it’s benefits are in question, then the lifter is educated on how, why, and what the front rack entails. This means all the way from anatomy to transferability.

    We do a lot of Oly lifting at CFC. It is a staple in our bag of tricks for strength, skill and athleticism. As such, it is imperative the lifter be able to go from the clean (power or squat, I don’t care just so long as the bar ends up in the front rack position), and then be able to jerk the bar overhead. You cannot do this from a crossover position.

    Now I understand that you may just be front squatting for the sake of getting strong under the bar in that position. I do stupid heavy front squats every week (every Monday at noon – I dread them), so I am all with you on that one. The heavy front squats help me with my clean and improve my strength and midline stability in a different way then back squats. I also do them in a regular front rack position since I know that is how I will be catching the bar in a heavy clean and I had better make damn sure my body understands the stress of the position, the proper mechanics needed to keep it all together, and get me ready for going overhead into a Jerk later on. We train our clients to work on putting the pieces of the puzzle together at a later time, i.e., front squat/front rack = clean & jerk transferability.

    If I have a client that is working front squats and cannot get into position for love or money, we do have a “go-to” workaround that we employ regularly involving a pair of lifting straps tied off around the bar. The straps create a type of handle that the lifter can grab just slightly above the bar, while in a proper front rack position. I wish I could detail this for you in words, but it’s too complex to get my point across without a picture and I am unable to snap one right now (hit me up later and I can add one or send one).

    Once in this position, all the same rules apply in keeping the elbows up/chest up, thoracic spine engaged, etc. The nice part of this workaround is that the lifter can start to work on proper front rack positioning, gaining strength and flexibility in that position, and over time be racking the bar like normal and moving a lot of weight. I speak from the experience of running assloads of clients through this progression to a proper front rack position over time and now watching with school girl giddiness as they front squat heavy, and Clean & Jerk like bosses. It warms the cockles of my heart….

    Lastly, one of the reasons the front rack is a better position for the upper body and supporting the load through the shoulder girdle and thoracic spine is due to the external rotation of the humerus (upper arm bone) and it’s relationship to the shoulder the supporting muscle groups.

    If we extend the humerus out in front of us, as in the front rack, and then rotate the humerus externally so we can grab the bar with the hands outside of the shoulder, we create tension through torque in the shoulder, the traps, rhomboids, rotators, lats and even pecs. This position of tension creates a much more stable upper thoracic spine position which will limit the amount of loss of position under a heavy lift, namely while coming out of the hole. If the thoracic spine goes, it takes with it the midline and lumbar spine. All bad under a heavy load. With the external rotation going on, everything stays much tighter and, in going back to transferability, it makes the “punch” overhead in the jerk that much more powerful.

    If the humerus rotates inward, as in the crossover grip, then we have a less stable platform in the shoulder girdle due to the lack of torque created in this position. We can create torque/tension in this inward position, but it’s going to be far below the level of the barbell and will by no means affect the upper shoulder girdle as much as the external rotation will. Your lats and pecs may be wound up a little bit, but all the other muscles you need for support and stabilization are smaller and have to be actively engaged for all of the reps (you need to be focusing on them non-stop), and that’s not going to last very long, in which case you will start to lose your thoracic positioning coming up out of the bottom and you may end up collapsing forward, dumping your bar, and then having me laugh at you…. (I am just kidding).

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat, although I have no idea who skins cats and why they’d be comparing such efforts, but needless to say you can do it anyway you like. I prefer the front rack and will always get my clients to lift in that position to move heavier weights over time and then have the improved strength in the upper shoulder girdle and transferability of the movement later on. You aren’t wrong for the way you front squat, I just don’t like it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like you, we just have differences of opinions. Workarounds do enable, but in the thought of integrating as much musculature into strength movements as possible to increase strength, power and athleticism, the workarounds will fall short over time.

    I liken it to using straps for deadlifts or heavy weighted pull ups- there’s a time and a place for them, but it’s not all the time and not every place otherwise overall grip strength will be compromised. I use straps for HEAVY D/L’s in doubles where my focus is on gaining strength and I don’t want to be worried about losing grip. If I know I can pull a triple at XXX, but my grip fails or starts to at a double, then i strap in to get the biggest systemic bang for the buck out of my triple. Still, I do a shit ton of deadlifts without straps at heavy loads, so I can still pull a 1 RM without them when it comes up.

    Hopefully some of the info here will give you a couple ways to tweak things and work on the front rack over time.

    Best regards – Crazy Ivan

  3. Jim Perry

    What me methods do you suggest to stretch the lats to allow for the elbows to come up. When my elbows are up, my hands end up too far back.

    1. Thanks for the question, Jim. There are a couple of decent ways to develop lat/shoulder flexibility to assist in the front rack. One of the most basic is to load the bar up in a rack with some decent weight on the bar, then set yourself up in your front rack position and step under it to allow the weight and gravity to stretch you out naturally.

      The above method applies to most barbell exercises where a loaded barbell will help you get into position to force the flexibility to happen. That being the case, proper form and mechanics must still be observed, so if your form is going to crap and doesn’t look right, then it’s a no go. A good coach should be able to eyeball you and give you a thumbs up or down in your ROM and form.

      The other ways to increase the flexibility for the front rack is by doing wall stretches with one or both arms. Stand in front of a wall, put one or both hands up by your neck to mimic the front rack position and lean into the wall with your elbows/triceps. Focus on pushing your chest into the wall and driving the elbows up as high as possible.

      You can mimic a similar stretch with an assistance band tied off down low to some upright object, then kneeling down, reaching over your shoulder to grab it and then stand up slowly. If I am describing it well, your elbow should rise up and be pointed at the ceiling while the humerus rotates back and up as well, stretching out the lat and shoulder.

      Lastly, make sure your grip width is wide enough to accommodate your build. About a thumbs length outside of shoulder width is a good rule of thumb (no pun intended) to allow the humerus to stay in a comfortable, un-impinged position within the joint (scaption), as well as allow for more flexibility in the arms to stay up. I set most athletes up about a thumbs length into the knurling on the bar and that gets most people in the ballpark. Also, make sure you aren’t death gripping the bar. Once it’s on the shoulder caps, the hands should open up and the fingers act only as a stopper to prevent the bar from rolling off.

      I hope that helps some. Let me know if you have something else that comes to mind. — Ian

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